Category Archives: reading

AN OCTOPUS IS BORN

The Benefits of Being an OctopusWe Emus are fluffing our feathers in proud excitement to announce that Ann Braden’s MG novel The Benefits of Being An Octopus will celebrate its book birthday tomorrow, September 4th.  If only we had tentacles to wave in joy as well!

Read on to learn more about the book’s amazing author and her axe-shaped necklace, about how teachers can’t wait to use it to help students expand their empathy, and how librarians can advise patrons on its appeal factors. We’ll also have a whole ‘nother post about the benefits of being an actual octopus!

 

An Interview with Ann Braden

by Anna Redding

Anna: This book is written in first person. To do that, you really have to know your character.  Zoey’s voice comes through crystal clear, illuminating her world

and way of thinking right out of the gate. It’s so well done, I have to ask, was that something yVersion 3ou focused on crafting or did Zoey’s voice come to you with this kind of clarity?

Ann: Zoey’s voice came to me like that. It’s hard to describe, but in my heart I was Zoey when I was writing the book, so I just wrote down what I knew she would say or think.  For me, it wasn’t about craft, it was just about listening.

Anna: When we first step into this incredible story, we step into a Zoey’s fascination with Octopuses (which we learn from her, doesn’t have to pronounced octopi, thank you very much). What is so brilliant, is that you suck us right into her irresistible curiosity, her enthusiasm, her lovable personality. The connection between reader and Zoey is immediate and as deep as when you bump into a new true best friend. Which is important, because this makes it possible for us to really go “there.” And, in this case,you are illuminating a story that often goes untold in America. Tell me about your decisions in crafting this aspect of the book.

Ann: When I was in the very early stages of conceptualizing the book, I read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and I was utterly captivated. I loved that octopuses were so much like us –they form relationships,have different personalities, and are super intelligent – yet they had evolved in such a different way. I think there are parallels of that amongst people, too: we all have different experiences growing up (some vastly different), but at the end we’re all trying to do the best we can. And the more I explored the connection between octopuses and Zoey, the more she became just as obsessed with octopuses as I was. 

Anna: At the same time, this story will be familiar to many readers who see themselves and their families in these pages… and yet their lives and experiences are often not on the subject of books. Have you heard from readers or teachers about what an important story this if for readers to be truly ‘seen’?

Ann – Yes. For kids growing up outside of the white, middle class culture, books that also take place in that culture can be an extra reminder that they don’t belong. (And of course, on the flip side of this, kids who are growing up in that culture can too easily ignore the range of other experiences if that’s all they see.) When I was teacher myself, I taught in several different schools, and I knew that there were kids like Zoey in every single one of them. My gut told me this had to be true on a broader scale, and the feedback I’ve been getting from teachers has confirmed that. And too often those kids have become so good at making themselves invisible that they fall through the cracks. But when we have books that discuss the issues that are central to their lives (but are rarely talked about in school) we are creating an opportunity for those students to see themselves as valued and to potentially connect in a way they hadn’t before. And EVERY SINGLE STUDENT deserves to feel valued and connected. 

Anna: I loved what School Library Journal had to say about THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS in their starred review: “Heartbreaking, beautifully written…Braden’s story raises many thought-provoking and timely questions about the difficulty of escaping poverty and the prevalence of fun violence.” That is such a powerful summary of a powerful book. What do you hope readers will take away from the pages of your book?

Ann: I hope that they come away recognizing their own strength (even if it’s not something that can be seen by others)and realize that how much money someone has has nothing to do with how hard they are working. And that no matter how powerless you feel, you always have the power of your voice.yelling emu

Anna: This is a ‘must-read’ for schools and classes. How can teachers tie this into curriculum and for students, who are inspired to take action in their own communities, what ideas do you suggest or resources can you point them to?

Ann: I’m really excited about the conversations this book has already started. And since the book brings up topics that aren’t often discussed, it can be good to have supports in place. Here is an Educator’s Guide that I put together in partnership with Equity Solutions, a non-profit focused on leading powerful conversations about economic class with people from all kinds of class backgrounds. Besides discussion questions, it includes extension activities, such as analyzing a budget of someone who only gets paid minimum wage and working to find the common ground of a controversial topic in the community. I also created a Flipgrid where educators can reflect on key questions in the books and discuss. Plus, the introductory video on the Flipgrid highlights a few key ways to make sure that discussions of the book are empowering for kids. 

Anna – Lastly, sometimes in life, in the most difficult of circumstances, you can see a lifeline emerge from the fog. For Zoey, it’s joining the debate club. What would you say toreaders about paying attention to those unexpected lifelines?

Ann – We never know where a choice will lead us, and it’s amazing what can happen when we say “Yes” to things. Even a small step forward can shift the ground beneath us in the best of ways. Still, sometimes if your head is down and you’reworking as hard as you can, no matter how many steps forward you try to take it seems like nothing will ever change. That’s when we need to be able to rely on allies who are ready to listen and those who are ready to team up and work to change the  underlying systems that make it so hard for some to make end meet. We all have to look for the opportunity to be lifelines for each other. Because when you’re in that fog, it’s often not possible to do it on your own. We have to remember that we’re all in this together.

Anna – Okay, one more question. For all readers (of all ages), there is a message about taking hold of your own potential, which is why this book is hopeful. What would you say to us about this idea of claiming your own power as your hope?

 Ann – Our own power is the tool that is ALWAYS with us, whether we can see it or not, and it’s up to us whether we wield it. When I was about two years into leading a movement in support of common ground gun laws in Vermont, something that I had never thought I would do and something that taught me I was far stronger than I had thought, I was catching my breath in the midst of months of 60-hour weeks. And in that quiet moment I was reminded that way back in middle school I had also discovered that I was stronger than I thought because that was when I first got into chopping wood. In that moment, I splurged on a small axe charm and I hung it around my neck because I knew there were many more steps I needed to take to help get gun laws passed, and I wanted to make sure I always remembered my own strength – and most importantly, remembered to wield it.Silver-Axe-Accessory

 I kept that necklace around my neck in am-packed statehouse committee rooms and when I was the target of online bullying. And those people who were trying to intimidate me into silence weren’t able to. Because at the end of the day, my eyes were focused on the kind of civil discourse I believed the issue deserved and I had faith in myself that I could help make that happen. That’s why I had hope, and, ultimately, landmark legislation was able to get passed. Zoey’s situation is similar. She had hope because she had memories of what her mom used to be like, and she found a way to keep her eyes focused on what she loved. And when that hope was combined with her courage to use her voice, it shifted the ground beneath her. Maybe all kids get that same chance to find their voice and use it.

 


The Realities Students Face: A Discussion with Teachers

by Kat Shepherd

Ann Braden’s long-awaited debut, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, is a powerful read that is sure to be a staple for schools and libraries for years to come. It received a starred review from School Library Journal, and it’s gone into a second printing before it’s even been released. Following the story of seventh-grader Zoey, it is a deftly-told tale that is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Octopus highlights struggles faced by students living in poverty, and takes an honest and compassionate look at how those struggles play out both inside and outside the classroom. Zoey’s teacher, Ms. Rochambeau, plays an important role in Zoey’s life, so I decided to invite some educators to share their thoughts on this beautifully-written novel.Octopus123

Q: When I read Zoey’s story I so wanted her to have that fairytale ending where everything works out perfectly, but the ending of this book, while hopeful, isn’t that perfect fairytale. Why is it important for kids to have books that don’t always have the perfect happy endings we want for characters?

Erin Varley: There are so many books out there that already have the fairy tale endings, so it’s just as important to have a lot of books that don’t have that ending. Life isn’t fairy tale perfect and kids figure that out really fast. In fact, for kids like Zoey, they figure it out too fast. For a kid to see that life, while not perfect, can still offer hope, well that’s just as important. Kids know when they are being lied to, and sometimes fairy tales can seem like that. They don’t buy the lies. Books like Octopus offer an alternate path that still is positive, but also realistic.

Kristin Crouch: I love the ending and agree that it not being perfectly wrapped up is a strength of the novel. In my school, I have so many fifth graders in transition. I’ve taught children in shelters, children who’ve moved several times through a year, children who move in with friends (resulting in 14 people in one two bedroom apartment), children in houses that have been condemned, children living in hotels until a new apartment is found (and those are just housing transitions!). Ending the book with Zoe in transition shows my students that transition is not, in and of itself, an ending… It proves what the teacher tries to convey to Zoe~ that she is not the product of her circumstance. She can, and will, make more of her experiences, but that doing so is not a quick, easy fix. It will take years of working hard to overcome her challenges.

Jennifer Druffel: I loved that it was not a fairytale ending! Kids need realistic books that mirror their own lives and see characters that can be strong despite their circumstances. Also, for kids who have never experienced such hardships, it helps them put themselves in someone else’s shoes and be less judgmental about their peers’ circumstances.

Cassie Thomas: Real life is not perfect, in any way. It’s so important for kids to be able to relate to stories, and if every student just reads books where everything turns out good in the end then in their life they may feel defeated and unsure. Every year I read Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson out loud to kids and the ending is not happy, it’s not perfect, but it’s real, and it leaves my students with jaws dropped and questions. Then they realize that in life they don’t get happy endings for every single thing. It’s a great message to have discussions over.

Q: Many adults have concerns that books dealing with issues like poverty and domestic violence are “too adult” for children to be exposed to. As a teacher, how do you respond to those concerns?

EV: Well, first I like to make sure each parent is heard. To be honest, I defer to the parent. If a parent tells me they don’t want a certain title being read by their child, I respect their wishes. However, I don’t remove the book from my library. Just because the book isn’t right for one certain child, doesn’t mean the same thing for every child. There might be another child in that same class that finds that book to be a lifeline, as I know Octopus might be.

KC: While I’m on the bandwagon that yes, these topics and concepts are too tough for kids, the fact is the kids who are exposed to it must know they are not alone. They are not invisible, they should not be hiding, and they will get through it.

JD: I would never force a student to read such a book. And if a parent is concerned, I’d ask them to read it first before they let their child read it so they can be the judge for their own child, but NOT for other people’s children!

CT: I teach 5th grade, and this comment irks me in a lot of ways. These students are SO mature and they truly know so much already. If they don’t, they are so eager to learn. When discussing social justice last year I had some outside people say this exact same thing, and my response was Do you know what your child is watching on TV? On their iPad? What the lyrics in their music actually say/mean?  Because they do, they totally know. They are smart and they want to be treated like an adult, especially at this age. I make sure I choose my words wisely, but we do have discussions. The reality is that some kids in class ARE experiencing that life, who are we to act that it doesn’t happen when it is reality for some.

(Name Withheld): When I read Octopus I immediately said… “THIS is what my kids deal with.” Honestly… this book is exactly what some of my kids go through on a daily basis. The trailer park, watching their younger siblings, new boyfriends/girlfriends all the time. Not that this makes any of the parents bad people or bad parents, and I know that everyone is doing the best they can, but I know that some of my students deal with a lot and have a lot of responsibility that I never had as a kid. Which makes this book even more important to include in my library!! It is the first book I’ve read that I really felt MY student’s struggles come through.

Q: When you read this book how did you envision it as a teaching tool in your own classrooms?

EV: I’m not sure I plan to read this book as a read aloud, but def as one to include and book talk in my classroom. I thought perhaps an excerpt would work as a discussion tool. Many tough topics are written with grace and hope, and kids need to see that tough times are not the end of the world, that things can get better, and that sometimes people need help or are doing the best they can in that moment.

KC: I was hoping to use this book to spark a discussion about verbal abuse. What it is, what it can sound like, and how it can affect your own thoughts about yourself and your abilities. From there, I was hoping to discuss negative and positive self talk as well. Even the character of the boyfriend’s father who lived in the house added to the stress. While he was less insulting toward the kids, they were living in a home in which people didn’t adore them~ they barely tolerated them. This affects the psyche, and I want my students to be able to recognize it so they can try to protect themselves any way they need to.

JD: I would book talk this book to my classes and then students can choose to read it if they wish!!

CT: As an educator I can’t even begin to explain to you the quiet importance that Ms. Rochambeau plays in this story. This will be a book that will not only be a very vital window for students to look in, but also a mirror to know they aren’t alone. Ann has touched on topics that I know for a fact students experience, or something similar, on a day in, day out basis, but are not quick to speak up. I feel as though all middle grade students and teachers need to read this book, and soon… One of our school wide behavior expectations is empathy and this book provides the opportunity to teach and understand empathy in Zoey’s life.

Q: I love that Ann views books as means of bridging the divides between people, as is evidenced in her excellent podcast with Saadia Faruqi. One thing I loved about Octopus is that it delves into the the complexity of issues that are often painted as simple black-or-white answers in the cultural narrative. What can educators do to help students find the complexity in these hot-button issues?

JD: It would be awesome to have a book club of students discuss this and their opinions on those issues!

CT: A way that I foresee us bringing up the complexity is giving multiple experiences and then having discussions, constantly. Everyone’s story isn’t the same in real life and Zoey’s story is one that some may relate to in SOME ways but not all ways, or the entire way. Another way is that I love for students to start figuring out solutions. What could we do as a community to help make these situations better.

Q: My husband, who grew up poor, talks often about how profoundly his life was impacted by a teacher who encouraged him to apply to a free Jesuit high school in Manhattan. He is still moved when he talks about what it meant for him to have an adult see him and believe that he had something great to offer the world. Jarrett Krosoczka still remembers being in school and having an author visit from Jack Gantos. Jack complimented Jarrett’s drawing of a cat, and it’s part of what encouraged him to become an author/illustrator. Zoey has Ms. Rochambeau. Who were those adults in your lives that encouraged you, and how do you see your role as teachers in helping kids reach their potential?

Octopus123 EV: I think about coaches first, actually. I was so involved with swimming and my coaches were the ones who stick out in my mind. They believed in me and saw potential in me that I didn’t always see. Encouraging kids and helping them see their good and their successes are what I try to do as a teacher. Always staying positive and helping develop a growth mindset are also things I try to encourage.

JD: I strive to let EVERY child I teach know they are valued for who they are. I notice strengths in each child and point them out often. I listen to let them know their voice is important. I can only hope that this will make a difference!!

CT: One of the educators who played the biggest role in my life was my middle grade creative writing teacher. I was going through a lot. Bullying was unbearable (to the point where we moved my 8th grade year), but Mrs. Ward helped me learn to write, how to escape that reality that I was dealing with and get thoughts out on paper through poetry. I was published. I was proud. I was finally happy. I knew that at that moment I wanted to be that light for students. There were a lot of teachers who weren’t there for me because they were friends with the parents of the students who were being ugly, so they just brushed my stresses aside. I knew then what I did NOT want to be as an educator. I feel that it has helped me significantly in building relationships and also with helping place that heart print book in the hands of a child who needs it. I don’t ever look at myself as a “savior” but an extra mom so to speak. I have told them I wear many hats as a teacher and I want nothing more than our classroom to be a safe place for them. So far it has proven to be just that.

Many thanks exceptional educators like Erin, Kristin, Jennifer, Cassie, and others for taking the time to chat with me and celebrate the debut of The Benefits of Being an Octopus. We are so excited to help welcome this wonderful book into the world!  For teachers who want to join this discussion, please visit Ann’s Octopus Flipgrid.


The Appeal Factors of Being An Octopus

by Christina Uss

Let’s not forget how librarians are going to get this tender, tough, many-tentacled story into the hands of readers. I was lucky enough to get some training as a library assistant last year and learned about successfully matching a reader with their next read as a reader’s advisor.  One of the keys to advising wisely is ferreting out a book’s APPEAL FACTORS, which turns out to be way cooler than solely recommending titles by t

200px-Easy_cheese2

he same author or the pushing the newest thing in the same genre. Thanks to the metadata librarians at NoveList, we’ve got a whole list of potential appeal factors, and I consider it an honor to be the first to point out to all librarians how they might describe The Appeal Factors of Being An Octopus:

  • Character – the main character is believable, relatable, courageous, likeable, spirited, strong, and well-developed. Kids are going to wish Zoey was their big sister, especially those who already know all about the eight-armed juggling that comes with taking on caregiving tasks for siblings (and sometimes parents) at a young age.
  • Writing Style – candid, compelling, engaging, with well-crafted dialogue. The book satisfyingly fills our minds’ eyes with rich details that make Zoey and her friends and family come alive (and our minds’ mouths with the comforting scrunch of Easy Cheese and crackers.)
  • Pace – intensifying. Will everything work out for Zoey and her family? How??
  • Storyline – both plot- and character-driven, mixing uncertainty in plot with Zoey’s determination
  • Tone -often intense with an emotional edge, moving from heartwarming to heart-wrenching, hopeful, sobering, eye-opening, thought-provoking, with a strong sense of place.

I can’t wait until Tuesday when my library system will load in its first copies of this fabulous and I can start advising readers to check it out!


Ann Braden writes about kids struggling to find their voice despite the realities of life, and about cultural divides and possibilities for bridges across.  She writes because even when life is throwing the entire kitchen at you…there is HOPE.  Come chat with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.


Ann's schedule

 

 

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There is Room for All of Us

My first real fiction writing was in college, when I wrote and performed in a sketch comedy group.  It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen or read anything we wrote back then, so I have no perspective on whether what we produced was good or terrible. But I know that we believed in the work we were doing, and we were always driven by the simple motto of our group’s president: Something for Everyone. Every show was a melange of of slapstick, satire, jokes that landed, and jokes that didn’t.

It’s the kind of motto that’s so simple that it seems almost silly to repeat.  Of course there should be something for everyone.  Of course. But back then it was a reminder that there isn’t just one kind of comedy. An audience is made up of a lot of different people; what’s eye-rollingly lame for one person may be hilarious to someone else, so don’t yuck anyone’s yum.  There’s room for all of it.

I was recently at a writing retreat with brilliant, inspirational speakers.  One speaker gave a beautiful presentation, and she told a story about an art student who was devastated when a professor told her, “Your art looks like something I could find at Crate & Barrel.” Part of the talk was about how to avoid writing a Crate & Barrel book. After the lecture, my friend turned to me and said, “But I like Crate & Barrel.”

I laughed and said, “Dude, Crate & Barrel is all I write.”  My forthcoming book series, Babysitting Nightmares, is a fairly-commercial spooky adventure series that is billed as Babysitters Club meets Goosebumps.  I love poignant, thought-provoking symbolic writing; reading a beautifully-written book is like savoring a gourmet meal.  It’s just not what I happen to be interested in writing right now.

That same speaker reminded us of the resonance and impact of writing. She said that once her first book was published, she realized that sales numbers didn’t matter; awards didn’t matter. If just one kid could read her book and say, “This means something to me,” then that is enough.  That is the reason to write.

In my mind, I write the books I write for a specific imaginary kid. It’s the kid who flounders during free reading time, because she can’t find a book that pulls her in.  It’s the kid who has almost no stars on the classroom reading chart. It’s the kid who says I don’t really like to read. I hated seeing those kids feel like they were always missing out on something, like reading was a punchline that everyone else seemed to get. Somewhere out there is a book that that kid will pick up and be able to say, Yes, I am a reader, too.

What I love about kidlit is also what I loved about comedy: the bandwidth is almost unlimited. We have so much freedom to tell the stories we want to tell.  We need every kind of story to be out in the world, because we have every kind of kid looking for a way to connect.  Something for everyone.  There’s room for all of it.  And I think that is why the kidlit community is such a supportive one.  We celebrate one another because we know that with every new book comes a new opportunity for a child to find the reader within.

***

Kat Shepherd is a writer and educator living in Los Angeles with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. She has been an avid reader since childhood, and as a teacher she worked to bring that same joy to her students. She is thrilled to be creating fast-paced, spooky stories that can engage all types of readers. The first book from her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts in fall 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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Border Collies and Babies—It’s Never Too Soon To Start (plus a giveaway!)

The story I’m about to tell is relevant to Terry Pierce’s MAMA LOVES YOU SO. I promise.

mama-loves-you-so-coverYears ago, my brother got a beautiful border collie puppy. I remember how excited Warren was, and I remember the solemn advice the breeder gave him. It was this: Show the dog everything he’s ever going to see within the first six months of his life. In short, it was Warren and his family’s responsibility to quickly give intelligent, impressionable Comet the information he’d need to thrive.

*presses pause on dog story*

My first professional, if unrequited, love is midwifery. Permit me to geek out for a bit.

The importance of verbally communicating with babies—and I mean from about 6 months gestation onward—cannot be overstated. Auditory function in the human fetus is complete at 7 months. Not only do they hear and respond to outside noises, research suggests babies learn intonation and can develop a basic recognition of words before birth. After birth, newborns rapidly form brain synapses that correspond with their birth language. In fact, studies have shown that young children who leave their birth language behind through immigration or adoption retain an enhanced ability to relearn it. Cool, huh?

Now let’s talk about MAMA LOVES YOU SO. This book, meant for the tiny ears of the tiniest of people, employs exquisitely rich and melodic language. It describes a world that is sparkling, stony, and ablaze. These are words an adult would be happy to use on a given day. MAMA LOVES YOU SO is crammed full of such delicious and nutritious words. It’s a brain-building buffet for babies and a boon to the brave souls who care for them. Baby and Book

Babies are exhausting. I know. I’ve had two babies, and two aren’t many at all. My in-laws had ten. My parents had five. Have I wondered if  I’m a slacker in the baby department? Yes. But that’s not my point.

Babies require mountains of back-breaking, laundry-making, sleep-taking care, and that’s just to keep them alive. We’re also supposed to educate, encourage, and entertain them. While all forms of communication nourish babies’ language readiness, including singing and everyday conversation, it’s challenging to know what to sing or say to a baby all day, every day.

I ask you, how are sleep-deprived people, wracked as they are with desperate love and stabs of anxiety, supposed to dredge up words like ablaze? They need books. They need books to give them words when they are too tired or overwhelmed to think up their own. Their children are primed to quickly learn millions of discrete, dynamic words, and optimally, they’d possess this treasure trove before starting school.  Where language acquisition is concerned, variety isn’t the spice of life, it is life. Books like MAMA LOVES YOU SO are a sure and happy route to that variety.

We must encourage caregivers, all the caregivers, to talk to babies early and often. Encourage them to talk to the belly, to sing to it, explain stuff to it, and for the love of literacy, to read to it. Encourage them to talk to the newborn. To sing. To explain. To read. We can smile at them benevolently when they do all of this in public. If we get the chance, we can give the caregiver a minute to shower and eat something while we talk, sing, explain, and read.

It might be possible to show a puppy everything it’s ever going to see in six months, but it’s impossible for a human newborn. Luckily, we have opposable thumbs, and opposable thumbs are great for making bookstores and libraries. That’s where Terry Pierce’s beautiful and important MAMA LOVES YOU SO can be found, ready and waiting to offer intelligent, impressionable young people information they need to thrive.

*presses play on dog story* 

Comet lived a long and happy life. He understood his world and how to conduct himself in it, thanks to purposeful attention to his formative experiences. May we do the same for each new child. We have longer than six months to accomplish it, but we don’t have forever. It’s never too soon to start.

 

Terry is giving away a signed copy of MAMA LOVES YOU SO as part of her book launch week. How to enter? Leave a comment below! For every comment you make this week—and please comment only once per day—she’ll enter your name into the giveaway.

Additional resources:

http://www.tipsonlifeandlove.com/book-mom

Valerie Garfield, Simon & Schuster editor of MAMA LOVES YOU SO, blogs about reading to and with children.

1000 Books Before Kindergarten

https://1000booksbeforekindergarten.org/about-us/mission-statement/


Enjoy the day,

Hayley
Hayley's Author PhotoI write for young people and live to make kids laugh. BABYMOON, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming from Candlewick Press, spring 2019. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, narrative nonfiction illustrated by Diana Sudyka, is also coming spring 2019 from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books. I’m represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

 

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The Emus’ Favorite Reads of 2015

We’re drawing to the close of 2015, and it’s been another great year of writing and reading for the Emus! Here are some of the titles we adored most this year:

PICTURE BOOKS

archieDebbi Michiko Florence: BUNNIES by Kevan Atteberry. Laugh out loud funny and cute!bunnies

Jason Gallaher: For an Antarctic, Literally Laughing Out Loud PB moment, everyone should read ARCHIE THE DAREDEVIL PENGUIN by Andy Rash. These are the most hysterical penguins you’ll ever see!

Elaine Vickers: My kids and I fell absolutely in love with two Pat Zietlow Miller titles this year: WHEREVER YOU GO and SHARING THE BREAD. Gorgeous and touching for grownups, and tons of kid appeal too.

MIDDLE GRADE AND CHAPTER BOOKS

Debbi Michikechoo Florence: For middle grade, GOODBYE STRANGER by Rebecca Stead, A HANDFUL OF STARS by Cynthia Lord – both are touching and sweet with characters you ache for. For chapter books, CLEO EDISON OLIVER, PLAYGROUND MILLIONAIRE by Sundee Frazier (but it’s not out till January).

Elly Schwartz: THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander and RAIN REIGN by Ann M. Martin. Loved both. PAPER THINGS by Jennifer Jacobson. EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS by Deborah Wiles (not new in 2015, but new to me), and THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE by our own Janet Fox (coming in March!)moonpenny

Hayley Barrett: K.A. Holt’s HOUSE ARREST is dazzling, and I loved Natalie Llyod’s A SNICKER OF MAGIC.

Tamara Ellis SmithECHO by Pam Muñoz Ryan and CRENSHAW by Katharine Applegate.

Sarvinder NaberhausFISH IN A TREE by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Jennifer Chambliss BertmanI bought Steve Sheinken’s MOST DANGEROUS as a Christmas gift, but couldn’t resist reading it first myself. It’s so good , I’m now gifting it to two people instead of just the one, and I’m keeping the original copy I bought for myself. Another favorite was MOONPENNY ISLAND by Tricia Springstubb. Beautiful writing.

YOUNG ADULT

Janet FoxdeathMartha Brockenbrough’s THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH was a favorite, and Laura Ruby’s BONE GAP!

Elaine Vickers: CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman and CALVIN by Martine Leavitt were both thoughtful and powerful novels about mental
illness that were so beautifully written.

Tamara Ellis Smith: THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough, and DIRT BIKES, DRONES, AND OTHER WAYS TO FLY by Conrad Wesselhoeftsimon

Elly Schwartz: FAT ANGIE by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Jason Gallaher: The book that blew me away this year was Becky Albertalli’s SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA. This is the kind of book that scared-to-come-out 15-year-old me would have felt so comforted and reassured and Holy-Moly-I’m-Not-Alone to have read. Plus, it’s got one of the cutest YA couples ever!

Thanks for participating, Emus! And readers, what were your favorite books of 2015?

 

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A Fan Letter to Readers

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Dear Readers Everywhere,

I know you probably hear this a lot, but I’m seriously your biggest fan! I’ve wanted to meet you for over a decade, and now that it’s finally happened, I’m totally FREAKING OUT!

You know that one day when you said how much you loved my book? Oh . . . my . . . gosh. My heart was beating a million times a minute. I keep wondering if you’re all secretly related to me, or if maybe my mother has made a hundred or so sock-puppet Goodreads accounts just so she can encourage me to keep writing.

But then you tell me you’re from the Philippines, or Texas, or Canada, or London, or Slovenia, or that gorgeous African island of Mauritius, and I just can’t wrap my head around it! And never in a million years did I think that even one of the 1.2 billion people in India would even know I existed, let alone be excited to read a novel I wrote! Like . . . what?!

You do realize that I grew up in a small town of about 5,000 people, right? That the most outrageous thing I ever dreamed of was going to Hawaii one day? And when that happened at sixteen (my first plane ride), I thought, “Wow. That’s about as good as life can get.”

But then I decided to be a writer. And I hoped people would actually like what I wrote, enough to even pay money for it. But I soon learned that this dream was, as some teenagers today might have told me, totes cray cray.

I had no clue whatsoever how much work would be involved, or how many times I would get my heart broken, or feel like a complete and utter idiot for even thinking I could become a published author.

But you, super-awesome readers, have changed everything. You’ve made me believe that all of the hard work and heartache was not only worth it, but have given me so much HAPPINESS that I’m jumping up and down with jazz hands in the air, wanting to do it all over again!

So sign me up for even more writer’s block, and self-doubt, and pulling my hair out! Go ahead and toss in some of that heartache and rejection! That’s right!

I’m ready.

This time I’m well prepared for the crazy/awful/awesome pathway to publication, because I now know who’s waiting for me at the end of it.

You.

 

All of my fan-girling love and deepest gratitude,

Amy Finnegan, Published author of NOT IN THE SCRIPT, Bloomsbury 2014 (OMG!!!)

Book for Chris

Just one of many amazing people I signed a book for in the past month! #Star-Lord

Gabrielle

Gabrielle from New Hampshire. The first reader I know of to spy it & buy it in the wild!

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Amy Finnegan writes her own stories because she enjoys falling in love over and over again, and thinks everyone deserves a happy ending. She likes to travel the world—usually to locations where her favorite books take place—and owes her unquenchable thirst for reading to Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling. Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, came about after hearing several years of behind-the-scenes stories from her industry veteran brother. She’s also been lucky enough to visit dozens of film sets and sit in on major productions such as Parks and Recreation and Parenthood. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, Instagram: StrangerThanFictionWriter, or Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author).

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Why Writers Should Be Readers

galley box largeAs a writer of books for children, the most difficult thing for me to admit is that I wasn’t a big reader when I was a child (which is very a-typical for kidlit authors). I read and loved a lot of picture books during my elementary school years, and then some Amelia Bedelia early readers, but I can literally name—on just two hands—the novels I remember finishing before I graduated from high school. They were pretty much all by Judy Blume and Roald Dahl.

I look back now and can’t figure out exactly why I wasn’t a big reader—my parents both read incessantly and took me to the library all the time—but I have a clue. Truth be known, reading was difficult for me. More often than not, I felt frustrated because I would read five or ten pages and then realize I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t remember which character was which or how they knew one another. I didn’t feel attached to the story at all. As it turns out, I had a learning disability that I didn’t know about until I was in college. But I won’t put a label on it now because this isn’t the point of my post.

The point of my post is to say this: My writing ability has taken a very long time to develop because I wasn’t a big reader until I was in my twenties. And now I’ve been playing catch up for the next twenty years.

I started with non-fiction (typical for a college student), moved on to the adult market, then finally—for the first time in my life—truly discovered the magic of middle grade and young adult novels. And that’s when I fell in love with reading. It became an addiction.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Reading is, by far, the best thing a writer can do to sharpen his or her storytelling skills. Yes, you also need to write and write and write, for development, but very little improvement will take place if a writer isn’t learning from others through a process similar to osmosis. Exposure to excellent storytelling, and lots of it, can’t help but rub off.

As a reader, the more books you read, the pickier you become about loving a book verses just liking it. Or even finishing it. Right?

The same thing has happened to me as a writer. The more I read, the easier it becomes to pick out what makes a plot work and what hurts it. The characters in a great novel become my friends, and just like it’s simple for me to tell someone what I like about my real-life BFFs, I can more skillfully tell my readers what makes a person attractive or repulsive (at least to me). And I can also better understand, by reading excellent books, what my own weaknesses are as a writer. I struggle with the details of setting—how to make it feel natural without overdoing it—and transitions. (Why is it so darn difficult to move a character from one room or thought to another?!)

But when I see the masters at work, I learn. And I absorb.

And this is another critical element: A writer needs to know and understand the genre and market they’re writing for. If you’ve been involved with critique groups and read enough pages from beginning writers (and believe me, I was one of them, so I’m not knocking anyone), it’s likely that you’ve heard sample pages that don’t fit the parameters of the author’s intended market. Perhaps it’s a picture book with 3000 words. Or the story is about seniors in high school, who should be thinking about college applications and their unattainable crush, but is instead filled with pranks on teachers and middle grade gross-out humor.

Knowing what works in each market, and what doesn’t, is obviously paramount to your success. And you’ll only know this if you’re intimately familiar with your chosen genre.

And then there is pacing. This is another thing I struggle with. I think of a cool scene that I’m dying to get to, or that awesome moment when my two main characters finally get things right, and I want to make it happen that very moment. I want the plot to move over so my characters can make out express everything they’ve been holding back. But the best pacing uses restraint for a slow burn; it builds up for a worth-while reveal. It makes a reader work for the rewards. And it also knows when to push all the details about the carpet and drapery out of the way and get on with the story.

I love that about reading, because good pacing is something that can only be understood through experiencing it. It can’t really be taught, and it’s certainly difficult to master.

Another benefit of continuous reading is recognizing clichés or overdone plots. While it’s true that there are “no new ideas, only new voices” editors likely won’t even read your first page these days—no matter how stellar your writing is—if your pitch tells them that the new girl in school is unavoidably attracted to a mysterious boy who is actually—gasp!—a vampire/werewolf/dark angel. While this pitch in various forms sold book after book about seven years ago, writers who keep up with the ever-changing trends will likely know better than to spend their time on a similar plot (but check back in another seven years).

And the #1 reason to read: isn’t reading THE BEST THING EVER, anyway?

I’m still not a fast reader, and my struggles with attention haven’t entirely faded, but once I get hooked on a good book, I’m gone. I’m in heaven. And I want nothing more than to help my own readers experience this same emotion.

So tell me, what has reading done for your own writing? Has it helped you avoid overdone plots or character types? Honed your skills? Does good writing put you in the mood to work? It surely does that for me!

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IMG_0723-2Amy Finnegan writes Young Adult novels and is a host at BookshopTalk.com. Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, will be published by Bloomsbury, Fall 2014. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, and Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author). She is represented by Erin Murphy.

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Filed under Advice, Character Development, craft~writing, Education, reading, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing and Life

EMU’s Best Under-the-Radar Kids’ Books of 2012!

Well, friends, it’s February now…which I think means that 2012 is truly, officially over. Best-of lists have been made, many literary awards covering the last year have been handed out, and we EMUs heartily congratulate our fellow authors who’ve been honored (including an impressive slew of EMU Emeriti!).

And yet, we can’t help thinking back on our favorite reads of the year—the ones that we couldn’t put down, the ones that made us swoon. The ones that, months later, we keep recommending to the kids (OK, and grown-ups) in our lives, even if they weren’t mega-best sellers or fancy award winners.

I asked a few fellow EMUs to share their favorite books that were published in 2012, focusing on titles that may have flown under the radar a little bit—and of course, they came through with enthusiasm. Looks like everyone’s TBR pile is about to get a little taller…

Carol Brendler

fitzosbornesI loved The FitzOsbornes at War, the third in a trilogy by Michelle Cooper (Knopf). A sort of alternative history of England in the second world war, the book is refreshingly sophisticated, well written, and meticulously and thoroughly researched. While not exactly ignored in the world of children’s literature, it’s one I felt deserved more attention than some of the top sellers.


Adi Rule

SledMy favorite read of 2012 was a picture book—The Iciest, Diciest, Scariest Sled Ride Ever! by Rebecca Rule (my mum) & Jennifer Thermes (Islandport Press). What happens when Lizzie, Patty P, Patty H, the Lapierre brothers, and even Chipper the dog decide to haul the long travois sled all the way up the big hill and ride it down?


Pat Zietlow Miller

little dogI will go with Little Dog, Lost by Marion Dane Bauer (Atheneum). It’s so sad. But it’s so sweet. On so many different levels. It’s such a moving look at loneliness and longing and love. And the writing? Exemplary.


Laurie Ann Thompson

BIGI loved BIG, written by Coleen Paratore and illustrated by Clare Fennell (Little Pickle Press).

Kids always want to be “bigger,” and adults tell children “you can do that when you’re bigger,” but there are plenty of ways little ones can be “big” in a different and much more important sense of the word. This empowering and inspiring book shows how even little children can accomplish some pretty big ideas—like being responsible for themselves and caring for others—and it serves as a gentle reminder to adult readers as well. The illustrations are bright and fun, and they enhance the text beautifully. This is definitely one of my favorite picture books of the year.

CrowAnd if I can add one more, I’d say As The Crow Flies by Sheila Keenan, illustrated by Kevin Duggan (Feiwel & Friends). This nonfiction picture book about crows is the book I was planning to write next, so I was angry and disappointed when I first saw that someone had beaten me to it. Once I saw it, though, I couldn’t be angry or disappointed anymore. It’s true to my idea and exactly what I wanted to accomplish, and it’s executed so, so well. I’m just happy to see it out in the world. Beautiful art, beautiful text, beautiful subject.


Tara Dairman

imgresIn middle grade, I adored Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley (Dial). Clever, quirky, and often just downright hilarious, I think that any shelf containing Roald Dahl or Lemony Snicket books can’t be considered complete without it. Really, I defy any reader not to be charmed by this book—it has a pirate character named Captain Rojo Herring, for heaven’s sake.

FairCoin_250x387And in YA, I loved Fair Coin by E.C. Myers (Pyr). Featuring wonderfully believable teen characters and a just-freaky-enough sci-fi concept involving parallel universes, I couldn’t put this book down. It stands alone, but now a sequel, Quantum Coin, is out, too!


So, blog readers, have you read any of our picks? Or do you have any under-the-radar recommendations of your own? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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